1497 – Vasco da Gama sets sail on the first direct voyage from Europe to India – A contemporary of Christopher Columbus, Portugal’s Vasco da Gama is also remembered for being the first European to sail somewhere; in this case, India. India was well-known to Europe by the late 15th Century, but to get there meant a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea and then overland across the Middle East. But it was agents of Portugal, sent into East Africa via Egypt to learn about trade routes and spice markets, who first claimed an ocean route to India around Africa might be possible. On this date in 1497, on a mission for Portuguese King John II, da Gama set sail with a fleet of four ships and a crew of 170 men from Lisbon, bound south. By Christmas, they were around to the East Coast of Africa and sailing north. In the spring of 1498, they encountered hostile Arab communities in present-day Mozambique and Kenya, but were still able to meet and contract the services of a navigator familiar with India’s monsoon winds who guided them safely to the southwestern Indian city of Calicut in May 1498. The sailors were treated hospitably, but the trinkets and gifts the Portuguese offered the city leader did not impress him, and they could not arrange a formal trade treaty. Still, they loaded up on spices including pepper and cinnamon (then exceedingly rare) and felt reasonably successful. Their return voyage was much harder, however, as, without the wind at their backs, their trip across the Indian Ocean took almost five months. Much of the crew was lost to sickness and scurvy, including da Gama’s brother Paulo, and only 55 men and two ships arrived back in Portugal in 1499. Portugal’s leaders realized then the vital importance of having friendly ports in Africa to load up on supplies and repair ships, influencing their empire-building in subsequent years. Da Gama left for India a second time, in 1502, hoping to use military might to sway Indian leaders into trading with them, but largely failed. Portugal later solidified a colony in India, of which da Gama was made governor in 1524. He died from malaria in India on Christmas Eve 1524, shortly after arriving for a third time.
1776 – The first official public reading of the United States Declaration of Independence is held – The red brick Independence Hall, located at 520 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, is the site where both the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted. It was built in 1732, and served as Pennsylvania’s State House for almost 70 years, including during the time of the American Revolution. Beginning in 1775, it was the principal meeting place of the Second Continental Congress which, on July 4, 1776, adopted the Declaration of Independence. Four days later, on this date, a celebration took place in the area now known as Independence Square, as the Declaration was publicly read aloud for the first time. The Liberty Bell, which was then used to call legislators to vote, is believed to have been rung for the occasion. The exact cause of the Liberty Bell’s famous crack is disputed, though it is thought to have occurred several decades after that happy day, likely in the 1830s or 40s, and possibly while ringing on the day Chief Justice John Marshall died, on July 6, 1835. Around the turn of the 19th Century, Philadelphia began sending the Bell around the country, and it was present for events in cities from Chicago to New Orleans, going as far as San Francisco for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Since 1948, it has been overseen by the National Park Service, housed just across from Independence Hall in Philadelphia’s “Independence National Historical Park.”
1932 – The Dow Jones Industrial Average reaches its lowest level during the Great Depression, 41.22 – In Canada at the height of the Great Depression in 1932, industrial production had fallen to 58 percent of the level seen in 1929, while national income fell to just 56 percent of the 1929 level, and unemployment climbed to 27 percent. Around the world during these years, only the United States experienced a drop in income and industry numbers worse than Canada. The Great Depression is generally seen as being a result of the “Black Tuesday” stock market crash of Oct. 29, 1929. This date in 1932, however, is seen by some as the absolute bottom of the Great Depression, as it was July 8, 1932 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average – an index of 30 major corporations – hit its lowest point since 1896, closing at 41.22. From its highest level in 1929, the Dow had suffered a drop of nearly 90 percent. Panicked selling in the U.S. stock market devastated the holdings of many investors, causing major declines in consumption and production, and impacting both cities, who relied on heavy industry, and rural communities, as crop and commodity prices plummeted. These events would lead, that November, to Franklin D. Roosevelt defeating Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, and becoming the first Democrat to be elected president since 1916. A combination of the United States’ entrance into the Second World War and Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, which included the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Social Security Act of 1935, helped the country climb out of the Depression.
1965 – British train robber Ronnie Biggs escapes prison, beginning a period of 36 years as a fugitive from the law – Born in London, England in 1929, Ronnie Biggs was drawn to crime at an early age. He was dishonourably discharged from the military at age 18 after breaking into a pharmacy. He was later arrested for stealing a car, and then, shortly after being released from prison, was arrested again for breaking into another business. It was while he was locked up for this crime that Biggs met Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind of the so-called “Great Train Robbery of 1963.” In the early morning of Aug. 8, 1963, Biggs, Reynolds and 13 other men stopped a mail train travelling from Glasgow to London and made off with over £2.6 million, or close to £50 million by today’s figures. Biggs’ share was £147,000 (about £2.5 million today), which he brought home safely to his wife and sons. However, the law caught up to the gang when they neglected to burn down the old barn where they’d planned the robbery and reconvened afterwards. Biggs’ fingerprints were found on a ketchup bottle and, in 1964, he and most of the rest of the group were sentenced to 30 years in prison. However, on this date in 1965 after serving just 15 months of his sentence, Biggs escaped from Wandsworth Prison by scaling a wall with a rope ladder and landing on top of a van, which then drove off. As it turns out, he was a much better fugitive than a thief. He fled to Belgium by boat, paid for plastic surgery to alter his appearance, and then wired his wife and children to meet him in Australia. They lived in Adelaide, and then Melbourne, as the police continued to track him. In 1969, after another close call, he fled on a passenger ship for Brazil, which at that time did not have an extradition treaty with the United Kingdom. Biggs and his wife got divorced, and he remained in Brazil through the 1970s. Scotland Yard tracked him down in Rio de Janeiro, but as Biggs had fathered a son in Brazil, the Brazilian government refused to extradite him. He gradually became more brazen about living out in the open, including recording music with The Sex Pistols. In 1981, a group of former British soldiers kidnapped Biggs, intending to sail across the Atlantic and collect a reward from police, but their boat broke down near Barbados, and Biggs was rescued by the coast guard. Like Brazil, Barbados had no extradition treaty with the United Kingdom, so he went freely back to Brazil. In 2001, impoverished and ill after a series of strokes, Biggs voluntarily agreed to return to the United Kingdom to receive medical treatment. He was immediately arrested and taken to a top-security prison to serve the 28 years remaining on his sentence. He was later released on compassionate grounds in 2009, and died at the age of 84 on Dec. 18, 2013.